Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Back last Monday I was fantasizing about a big herping trip upstate, maybe to Chester County, maybe to the mountains. I didn’t really care, as long as it was somewhere they’ve got black rat snakes (Pantherophis obsoleta). There is no finer snake in the Northeast: they can be so elegant in their jet black with white chins, and they’re often incredibly gentle in the face of a huge potential predator. Even when they rear up in that big zig-zag pose you know they don’t want to strike. Every now and then you’re lucky enough to find a really big one, a beast pushing seven feet and as thick as your forearm, looking almost clumsy until you see it glide up a tree trunk like it’s flat on the ground.

But there I go fantasizing again. This weekend the weather turned out to be cool, damp, and cloudy, and I called off any big trips in favor or some homework (I’ll see if I can take off a day with better weather) and a small trip into the Wissahickon Valley on Saturday (April 26th) afternoon in search of milk snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum).

A guy from New England on the Field Herp Forum (www.fieldherpforum.com) posted a couple months ago about finding milk snakes, and how he usually finds them on overcast, warm, humid days when he feels a storm coming. So after dropping Jen and my parents at the airport (Jen for a weekend trip, my parents on a big vacation), I took advantage of an overcast, humid day with a chance of rain (although not so warm) and started flipping rocks.

It almost goes without saying that I found no milk snakes – I would have led this post off with a long string of exclamation points – but I did get a workout. Scott and I were chatting about this a few weeks ago; we have to get back into herping shape, to be able to spend hours hiking steep slopes and bending over again and again to lift heavy rock after heavy rock.

I only found one red back salamander (Plethodon cinereus), which was very strange since I would have expected to find dozens. I did find a couple active mouse nests. This always makes me feel awful. I’m sure they recover and rebuild once I’m gone, but I always feel the need to apologize when I see the mother looking at me with those big, terrified, liquid eyes just before she runs away with her babies hanging off her.

However bad I feel about the whole incident, it’s actually a good thing for a milk snake hunter to find mice, since milk snakes make a living by eating mice and their cute little babies; at least I know there’s food.

Baby milk snakes actually specialize in eating babies of smaller snake species, and so the only snake find of the day was an auspicious one – this baby ring neck snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii). It was a lovely little find in its own right, of course, even if it didn’t want to pose for the camera. See below for the weedy terrain where I found it and a few pics – a couple of it pausing in awkward positions and one of it moving its head at just the wrong moment.